Is there a more effective approach to meetings?
03 April 2016
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Hello and welcome to another edition of Old Mutual Live Business, my name is Chris Gibbons. Business life is often full of meetings, meetings and more meetings. I can hear you complaining already! Well, you could be in the United States where no less than 11 million meetings take place every single day. Is there a way of running better meetings, making them either more productive or shorter or both? What would happen if we applied a concept called ‘mindfulness’ to our meetings? Might that have the desired effect?
We’re joined now on Old Mutual Live Business by Riette Ackermann an Executive Coach and Learning Consultant with her own practice, Change Pace Coaching and Personal Development. Riette, greetings, welcome to Old Mutual Live Business. First off, what are the key problem areas associated with the average corporate meeting?
What are the key problems with meetings?
Riette Ackermann: Thanks Chris, yes, there’s a lot of problems that I’m sure people will be able to relate to. Things like meetings often start late, people arrive unprepared or not too sure about the purpose of the meeting. During the meeting, times is not managed well, so it also runs over time.
Sometimes the discussion goes off topic, people go off on tangents that have nothing to do with the actual meeting. Things like not a clear agenda. It might seem a little bit old school, but having an agenda actually still helps and going back to basics is not a bad idea.
You’ll often find that there’s people who do all the talking and others who say nothing. Some people are there who don’t really need to be there or there are key people that have to be part of the decision making that are not attending.
There’s a lot of issues with meetings these days and most of all, probably, people get distracted and they start looking at their phones and they read their emails or they’ve got their Tablet and their laptops there. People think they can multitask and do more than one thing at a time, but often they miss really important information. Then I think it just wastes a lot of time, often, meetings and people leave not really knowing what they have to be doing or tasks overlap between different people.
CG: Of course, some executives are known for their ability to lead very effective meetings.
RA: Yes, there definitely are those and I think that actually sort of goes back to things like having a very clear purpose for the meeting. Managing the time well and making sure that at the end there’s very clear task allocation and timelines.
The concept of ‘mindfulness’
CG: If we apply this concept called ‘mindfulness’, let’s just start off with a definition, if we can. What do we mean when we use the term mindfulness?
RA: In essence mindfulness is actually a very simple concept. As the word indicates, it’s about being mindful as opposed to mindless. Mindless is boring or not applying one’s mind. So if I have to define it, simply it means paying attention in a very particular way.
So with purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally. What it does, this kind of attention, it actually makes one more aware and things are much clearer than it might otherwise be. If we can commit to paying attention in an open way such as this, it actually allows for new possibilities or new perspectives to come up.
CG: Could we apply mindfulness to a meeting? How would mindfulness work if we used it in a meeting environment?
RA: Yes, we absolutely can and there has been quite a bit of research in the area, especially by Cranfield University Centre for Business Performance. They’re in the UK, but through my association with GIBS, we’ve done some partnership work with them.
Researchers there have found that if the Chair or leader of a meeting can help participants to become more mindful, they engage better. They’re more focused on what’s going on in the meeting rather than their own thoughts and therefore they make better decisions.
How to be more ‘mindful’
Practically, if we think about, so how do we apply it. Practically there’s quite a lot of techniques that one can use. For instance, if you’re invited to a meeting, it’s helpful if you find out beforehand what the purpose of the meeting is, if it’s a bit vague and go prepared.
If there’s information that you can read through or you can even ask for more information, if it’s not clear. Then when you actually arrive at the meeting, it’s a good idea to do a quick self-check-in. Which really is just how am I doing or how am I feeling.
This helps you become more aware and it helps you let go of any of the other thoughts that might be in your head. You know how busy our heads are, there’s so much to do, we feel a bit overwhelmed. So if you just kind of check in with that, it helps to move on; from that for a little while or feelings such as maybe physically you’ve got backache or maybe emotionally you had a fight with your daughter before school. It just helps to connect with those in order to not have it unconsciously affect you in the meeting.
If you’re running a meeting, there’s a lot you can do. You’re the one that sort of sends out the invitations. I would suggest that you provide people with information beforehand. Not too long in advance, not too short notice, so that’s quite a tricky balance to find.
Something that literally just tells them what’s the purpose of the meeting and what you hope the outcome could be for you to achieve as a group in that meeting. Because that means people already come with that in mind. So there’s already a bit of focus. If there’s preparation that you’d like them to do, again, extend it to them. But bear in mind that people are busy and don’t have a lot of time to read stuff beforehand.
Don’t invite the whole world to meetings
Then, only invite those people that are really key, less is actually more in a meeting. Sometimes when there’s too many people, not a lot gets achieved. Make the meetings shorter, if you can. People are used to doing the one-hour thing or a few hours. If you can, make it 45 minutes or even 30 minutes so that it helps everyone be a little bit more focused.
Then, very importantly, start on time, don’t reward bad behaviour. People will soon pick up on that and start arriving on time. That’s one of those things that if you let it slide, then everyone thinks it’s okay to arrive a few minutes late.
Then, if we really sort of go into doing a little bit more of the mindfulness stuff. When you start a meeting, it’s a good idea and I know many people in corporates do this already in some form or the other, to do a quick check-in round.
It’s the same purpose with the self-check-in, but you now introduce it to the group. Manage time carefully so people don’t sort of start talking about what they did on the weekend. Ask a specific question where you literally say to people, just tell us how you’re doing in one word or in 30 seconds.
Because it again has that same effect where people can be more focused and let go of some of the other stuff that’s going on in your head. If you’re really brave or maybe you can build up to this, it’s good to do a short one to two-minute breathing exercise. It focuses the mind and it helps people make that shift from maybe a previous meeting or other work they’ve been busy with.
Again, it’s literally just take a moment to take a few deep breaths. People are prepared to do it at the gym in the gym class, so why not at a meeting and then you can start with your meeting where you really go into the conversation. When you go into the conversation, encourage people to be open, non-judgmental, really encourage the different views to come into the room. But respect the fact that we can only concentrate for a short period of time, almost 20-30 minutes is tops.
If it’s a longer meeting, take breaks, have some healthy refreshments and all the while keep the focus and the structure of the meeting. It makes people feel more secure that it’s not going to go over time or go off on another tangent and therefore they’ll make better decisions.
Then, at the end, summarise what’s been decided, so everyone walks out on the same page. Even some of the latest thinking even suggests, why not try a stand up meeting. Because as soon as we sit down we tend to relax a little bit and maybe not be as focused. Another option, if there’s only 2-3 of you is to have a walking meeting. If there is space to go for a walk outside, that will also help the brain work a little bit better than normal.
Do we spend enough time reflecting on meetings?
CG: Riette, final question, do we spend enough time actually analysing, say at the end of a meeting. The meeting process itself, what worked, what didn’t and what we need to do to make the next meeting work better?
RA: Sjoe, no, I rarely come across anyone that does that and reflection is actually a key skill. It’s a key leadership skill. So it’s a wonderful idea to end a meeting almost with a short checkout then. Use exactly those questions that you’ve mentioned. What worked well, what did not work so well and what do we need to do differently going forward.
This will also help you, as a person who maybe has to have regular meetings, to get to know your audience or your team or that group of people. Also just how different people have different needs from meetings and therefore you can try out new ways of having effective meetings with the input that you get from those questions.
CG: There we’ll leave it. Riette Ackermann, Executive Coach, Learning Consultant, her own practice, Change Pace Coaching and Personal Development, Riette, thank you for being with me on Old Mutual Live Business.
RA: Thank you Chris.